New Article on Psalm 51 in JSOT

I am pleased to see a new article of mine published in the current issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. The article is entitled “David’s spiritual walls and conceptual blending in Psalm 51” and the abstract is as follows:

Owing to the apparent topical disjunction of the final two verses of Psalm 51, many commentators consider them a later addition, particularly given the attitude toward sacrifice and the reference to Jerusalem’s walls. By taking a cognitive linguistic approach, particularly applying Fauconnier and Turner’s theory of conceptual blending, this article demonstrates the unity of the Psalm as a discourse unit. Additionally, this article builds upon literary structural analyses of others to suggest the complementarity of the cognitive linguistic and literary approaches. This analysis of Psalm 51 as a whole demonstrates that, not only do vv. 20–21 cohere with the entire psalm, they do so by interacting with vv. 18–19 to build meaning from a single conceptual blend network, one that depends upon the conceptual structures prompted by the narrative setting throughout the discourse. On this reading, David himself is Zion/Jerusalem whose damaged spiritual walls require restoration by Yhwh as a builder.

I am afraid I cannot post the actual published version due to the ridiculous copyright practices of academic journals. But I can break down some of the jargon a little bit and give away the punchline.

Overview of the Question

Without reiterating too much of the same content in the abstract above, one of the basic question that biblical critics must answer when reading Psalm 51 has to do with the last two verses, which say:

18 By Your favor do good to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, In burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then young bulls will be offered on Your altar. (NASB ’95)

In the preceding few verses, the psalmist records his confession of sin, petition for forgiveness, and God’s desire for contrition of the heart. To many, the fact that Zion/Jerusalem shows up — seemingly out of nowhere — means that the verse (and the one after) must have been added at a later point. This view is reinforced by the mention of the broken walls of Jerusalem, which is virtually automatically taken to refer to the fall of the city to Babylon (2 Kings 25). Therefore, the logic goes, these last verses must be postexilic in origin. Some commentators slice things up a little differently, or date the proposed sections of the psalm earlier or later. I survey a lot of different options in the article. But the basic assumption is that of (at least) a two-stage process of composition for the psalm.

A Different Way Forward

I don’t think that’s justified. To describe why, I adopt an analytical framework from cognitive linguistics known as “conceptual blending theory.” Now, some people are wary of overly-developed method and I understand that. But conceptual blending theory is basically just a fancy way of talking about (and diagramming) metaphors. I give a basic overview of the theory in the article using the imagery of my wife Kelli at the grocery store and this nifty diagram (right). I suggest using the narrative context provided in the psalm’s superscript — David’s sin with Bathsheba — as a way of back-filling the information needed for the metaphors involved. Another way of saying this is: I am actually assuming that Psalm 51 is about David and Bathsheba. Crazy right?

The Punchline

David is Jerusalem and his spirit is the city infrastructure.

As a royal representative of Zion (and everyone in it), his sin wreaks metaphorical damage to the city walls that must be repaired. Of course, God himself is the only builder who can actually repair spiritual walls and David knows that, which is why he is confessing his sin in the psalm to begin with. Read in this light, the petition for God to “(re)build the walls of Jerusalem” makes much more sense without assuming a postexilic context or multiple stages in the composition of the psalm. So at the end of the day, the final two verses actually cohere beautifully with the psalm as a whole and I have a lot of very impressive diagrams to prove it. Read the article for yourself to see if you agree.

The background of this article is actually some personal scripture reading I was doing years ago in the Proverbs, where the same metaphor appears. We read:

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Prov. 25:28)

I wrote a short piece about this passage for TGC and then later presented a paper at SBL 2016 on Ps. 51. But this short proverb is what got my brain going about the metaphor of your spirit as the defensive infrastructure of a city. See? Reading your bible pays off.


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